By mid-September, Bragg's army had grown to seventy thousand men, and the Confederate general decided to launch a major attack on Rosecrans' widely dispersed troops. Rosecrans learned of the attack just in time, and he hurriedly gathered his army together near Chickamauga Creek in Georgia. The brutal Battle of Chickamauga erupted on the morning of September 19. Both sides engaged in bitter struggles for small pieces of land, but neither army could gain a big advantage. At one point, Confederate troops under the direction of Major General John B. Hood (1831-1879) registered significant gains on their Yankee foes. But their advance disintegrated when Hood and his lieutenants stumbled into an angry nest of stinging hornets.
On September 20, the battle resumed. This time, however, Rose-crans' Army of the Cumberland wilted under heavy pressure from Bragg's troops. Rather than attempt to hold his position, Rosecrans called a panicky retreat. Many of Rosecrans' divisions promptly fled the field of battle, and Bragg's triumphant soldiers immediately gave chase. The entire Union Army might have been destroyed were it not for the heroics of Major General George H. Thomas. The courageous Federal officer used his troops to establish a defensive shield around the fleeing Union soldiers. Thomas's brave stand enabled the Army of the Cumberland to withdraw to Chattanooga without being cut to pieces by their pursuers. Even so, Rosecrans lost sixteen thousand men in the struggle.
Over on the Confederate side, meanwhile, casualties numbered more than eighteen thousand. In addition, Bragg was harshly criticized in Richmond and by his own officers in the days following the battle. These critics argued that if Bragg had pursued Rose-crans more vigorously, the Army of the Cumberland could have been wiped out before it reached the safety of Chattanooga.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Chickamauga was a major triumph for the South. It gave the Confederacy something to cheer about after the disasters at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Moreover, it sent a strong message to the North that the South remained a strong foe on the field of battle.
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